Dracula's Revenge

Robert R. Thompson

At a lunch with two members of the Romanian Senate the discussion moved from NATO admission to Dracula Park.

"Piei, Drace!" — "Dracula, go away!" This is the June 14, 2002 headline in one of Romania's major newspapers, Romania Libera. Beneath it is a full-page story about the controversy currently raging in Romania over the proposal to construct "Dracula Park". Those, such as Dan Matei-Agathon, Romania's Minister of Tourism, who want to build a Dracula theme park, believe that focusing on that well known "Romanian vampire" will lure hordes of western tourists to the country. Others, I discovered, think the theme park is a phony western phantom's destructive revenge on their newly democratic nation .

I visited Romania in 2000 and returned for a second time this June, to find that the country still faces numerous problems. Certainly, the Dracula Park debate stirs as much emotion as any other political or economic issue. It combines a tangle of political, cultural, and ecological concerns and involves domestic and international politics. And the dispute is a difficult test for Romania's young democracy.

Romania Libera reports that the park proposal sparked an international as well as a domestic outcry. UNESCO (UN Educational, Social, and Cultural Organization), the European Parliament, even Great Britain's Prince Charles, who visited Sighisoara, Romania, Dracula's hometown, all castigated the idea of building a theme park based on the Dracula character. The newspaper, for example, quotes the Irish Times' warning that Romania risks turning its history into a cartoon. The article also suggests that if the park is built, UNESCO will withhold funds earmarked for the protection and refurbishment of Romania's historical monuments and cultural institutions.

This debate, no doubt, seems somewhat bewildering not only to outsiders, but also to Romanians. This is partly because the Dracula controversy is actually about three Draculas: all three answer to the name "Dracula," but only one is real, and Romanian. The first Dracula, the real person, reigned in Transylvania, Romania during the mid-fifteenth century. (See "The Draculas' Hometown".) Lucian Boia's book, Romania explains that this prince, Vlad Dracul, inherited his name from his father, and was indeed known in the west as "Dracula".

This Romanian prince was also quite well known across medieval Europe as Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler. He earned this appellation, and a rather nasty reputation, for the way he punished conquered Turkish enemies and his own subjects caught in criminal acts: They were impaled on large stakes. As they painfully expired, Vlad enjoyed a hearty meal while he watched. This historical Vlad is today actually a hero to Romanians. They view him as a law and order kind of guy — no street crime in his domain. And they laud his defense of the country from the Turk's European onslaught. Vlad was cruel and bloodthirsty, indeed, but he was not a vampire.

In 1897 the British author Bram Stoker combined Transylvanian myth and legend to create a second Dracula, the blood sucking vampire of his famous novel, Dracula. Stoker, however, never visited Transylvania, and he wrote the novel when Transylvania was part of Hungary. So his "Count Dracula" was Hungarian, not Romanian. But from the "coffin" Stoker's novel opened, film after film after film, emerged: DRACULA. I remember watching Hollywood's Dracula do his thing on my grainy black and white TV and later in garish Technicolor. Bela Lugosi, Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing bit neck after neck after neck.

I heard of the Dracula Park plan during my first Romanian visit in 2000, when I traveled to Sighisoara, a small Transylvanian town, birthplace of the historical Vlad Dracul, and a possible park location. Sighisoara is a beautifully preserved medieval town that nestles beneath the majestic Carpathian Mountains. At day's end I climbed with my Romanian hosts along a dirt path up into the mountains' lower foothills. We stopped at a flat pasture, still far below the towering peaks, sprawled out on some coarse woolen blankets, and watched night come on. The air grew crisp, the surrounding mountains darkened, the stars appeared as crystal clear points of light. Silence settled over us. Dracula and Dracula Park were far away. Two years ago the idea of a theme park close by this beautiful town and its pastoral surroundings seemed preposterous.

But in 2002 the debate is very real. The controversy is no longer about a vague proposal; it is about the park's actual construction. In newspapers, and on morning TV shows, historians, politicians, environmental activists and other Romanians wrangle over the issue. The Tourism Minister, Mr. Agathon, threatens to resign if the park is not built. To finance construction and build public support he offers the public the chance to buy shares in the park. (Anyone interested? — who knows, an investment in Dracula Park may end up being less risky than investing in the current US stock market!)

Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase shows his support by being one of the first to purchase a piece of the park. Mr. Agathon also puts his own money on the line and buys shares in the park. And, to really demonstrate how strongly he feels, and to encourage support and donations, he now travels around the country sporting Dracula-like vampire fangs. No cape yet-but, based on what I learned about him during my trip, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him try a full-blown Bela Lugosi impersonation if he gets really desperate.

This is what I heard, this June, during my talks with politicians, lawyers, my host family, and their friends. Since Romania's acceptance into the European Union and NATO are the crucial current political and economic questions, along with the still sputtering economy, some Romanians feel the Dracula Park controversy is frivolous. They resent this dispute, which the western press depicts in humorous articles. Of course, Mr. Agathon and his supporters believe that the park, and the publicity from articles in The New York Times, Financial Times, and International Herald Tribune, are an important part of the cure for Romania's economic woes.

Some Romanians who oppose Dracula Park agree that the issue is not petty. For them it is an important dispute about the nature of, and the future of post-communist Romania. At a lunch with two members of the Romanian Senate the discussion moved from NATO admission to Dracula Park. We were in a small basement dinning room, in an austere brown stone building at the center of Bucharest, Romania's capitol city. The building is plain but not ugly, not tall, about five stories high, built in the 1930s and '40s. Before the 1989 revolution against Romania's communist rulers it belonged to the Central Committee of the Romanian Communist Party. Now it is the office building for members of Parliament.

The Parliament actually meets in a huge monstrosity of a building (formerly the House of the People, now the Palace of the Parliament) erected by Romania's last communist leader, Nicolai Ceacescu. Ceacescu was executed in 1989. A brutal ruler, he is often compared to the blood-sucking vampire, Dracula. He is seen as a monster, the destroyer of Romania's culture, politics, and economy; his power lust the source of the country's current ills. The senators note that, unfortunately for Parliament's members, the office building we meet in is a good 20-to-30 minute taxi or car ride from the Palace of the Parliament — no limousines for these politicians. Such is life, for everyone in Romania; even for politicians, it's always a bit of a struggle.

Still, during an animated conversation with the two Romanian Senators, I found them quite similar to other politicians in other nations, east and west. They are poised and confident, talkative yet cautious, well dressed but not flashy. They seem a bit larger than life, carry themselves with a certain sense of their importance, yet they are by no means distant or withdrawn. Both would have been at home in any political setting, east or west. And though NATO and the European Union were on their mind, so, too, was Dracula Park. For them Dracula is, indeed, an important and troublesome political question.

They are aware that some Romanians, such as Mr. Agathon, strongly feel that the park will help the economy. And they give high marks to the Tourism Minister's success in improving Romania's tourist industry. They certainly agree with the Minister that tourism must be a vital part of a revived Romanian economy. But for both senators, the Park is a "bad idea" which threatens destruction of an especially bucolic spot in order to build tourism. They are concerned about the way the theme park idea mangles Romanian history and culture, through the way it plays on western ideas about Dracula to spur tourism. But their main focus is on hard facts.

They believe the projected location, Sighisoara and the surrounding area in Transylvania, is terrible. There are no facilities, no hotels of any size, no airports, no big highways, or parking for tourist buses and cars, and not even any large train stations. And, to build the kind of facilities western tourists expect will destroy the environment and require financing far beyond what Mr. Agathon finds feasible. Why, asks one Senator, build a "Dracula-Disneyland" when the money can be used to restore the area's real medieval heritage? Finally, they felt that building the park would create a threat to the local environment which, given strict European Union standards, will damage Romania's chances of entering the European Union. "Have you," they ask me, "been in Transylvania?"

Their final question echoes in my mind as we say our good byes, and they grab taxis to head off to the Parliament. Yes, two years ago I had visited Transylvania. Admittedly I, typically, had gone with thoughts of those old Dracula movies. But Hollywood's images were wiped away by my introduction to the land's extraordinary beauty. True, I also saw that Sighisoara, the charming small town of Vlad's birth, was not loath to cash in on Dracula, any "Dracula".

The town overflowed with Dracula souvenirs. But that is, after all, what western tourists want. That is why tourists might actually visit Dracula Park. This was certainly why I was excited about going to Transylvania. Why not cash in? Professor Boia notes the Romanian dilemma in his book: "Romanians cannot decide what attitude to take. . .(the western 'transformation' of a Romanian Prince into evil vampire) arouses indignation. On the other hand they have no wish to discourage tourism. If foreigners want Dracula, let them have him!"

As I walk around Bucharest after me meeting with the senators, I soak in the atmosphere of the city. It is not beautiful like Vienna, Budapest, or Prague. Yet, having endured much turmoil, like the country as a whole, I see it as gritty, in the best sense, and resilient. What Professor James David Barber calls "McWorld" consumes the city with its McDonalds, Burger Kings and Pizza Huts; with ads for western products everywhere; and, with American TV shows and movies. I admit that I was tempted to see, for about a dollar, "StarWars II" dubbed in Romanian. McWorld has, over the last decade, flowed into the vacuum left by Ceacescu's and the communists' wanton destruction of the old city, known in the past as "Little Paris".

Professor Boia notes that the historical figure, Vlad Dracul, has spawned "two such different myths. . .a national and political symbol for the Romanians. . .(and) the gothic legend of the vampire." One myth culture, the other, the culture of commerce. A Romanian friend suggested that the Tourism Minister Mr. Agathon ought to be "de-fanged." Yet, like it or not, Romania will always have its "Dracula".

It also has "Johnnie Walker". At the top of a tall building on the great square near the Parliament office building, where massive communist rallies were held during Ceacescu's rule, an enormous red neon Johnnie tips his cap and pushes his drink. Johnnie Walker is, no doubt, in Romania to stay. And Dracula? Can Romanians have Dracula without the theme park; the lure of culture and historical mystery without the baneful impact of commerce? The battle is joined, and the outcome is uncertain. For myself, I'll hope with my Romanian friends that Dracula Park gets a stake through the heart. But I'm keeping my "I love Dracula" bumper sticker. Piei, Drace! — Go away Dracula, but not too far.

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